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Trying to Reason with Wildfire Season

Column by Hal Walter

Wildfire – September 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

THROUGH THE SMOKEY HAZE of summer forest fires, up and down the ranges from Westcliffe to Leadville, stands of copper-brown beetle-killed evergreen trees paint the mountainsides like a sepiatone photograph.

The clusters of dead trees, their needles still clinging, stand out like pock marks on the lush woods of the Wet Mountains. They mottle the flanks of the Sangre de Cristos.

In the morning light they stick out like sore thumbs on the lower slopes of Antero, Shavano and Harvard. And in the evening they lend color to the shadows of Colorado’s tallest peaks, Massive and Elbert.

They are like time bombs waiting to explode. If they do go — and some experts say it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” — they’ll turn from rich brown to fiery orange, and the fire will probably take out everything in its downwind path.

If you’re a rural western homeowner you’ve probably given at least cursory thought to evacuation plans this summer. With more than 65 wildfires raging over 4 million acres in the West this August, and almost no real precipitation since last August, I know I started viewing my place in a new light.

What I have is a cluster of sun-baked, fir-sided frame buildings surrounded by parched grass studded with crispy pinecones, and encircled by dozens of towering Ponderosa pines so thirsty that they creak, ooze pitch, and show the backsides of their needles in the warm, dry summer breezes.

All it would take is for one thoughtless person to throw a cigarette butt out the window on Boneyard Road, upwind about one mile from here, and I could kiss this place and everything I own good-bye.

That’s if I have time to kiss it good-bye.

If you see the fire coming, what would you take? I am reminded of the scene in Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two in the Shade when the central character’s car burns with all of his worldly possessions inside; he is overwhelmed with tears of joy because of his newfound sense of freedom. I’m not sure I’d be so happy driving away and watching my whole little world go up in smoke.

First off, I have animals to worry about — two dogs, one cat, five burros and one horse. The small animals would be no problem, but the big critters won’t all fit into my stock trailer at one time. Livestock triage: I could get all the burros in there, but what about the horse? And if I take the horse, that means two burros have to stay. Then there’s the question of whether any of these animals would load up when there’s smoke in the air and flames are licking the edge of the pasture.

I asked many friends and neighbors if they have evacuation plans and what they would take if a fire was coming. Some had thought it over and some hadn’t. But without exception, they all said their animals would be their first concern. Of course, animals are the main reason many of these people moved to this rural setting in the first place.

Nobody mentioned pictures, but many of the people who lost their homes in New Mexico’s Los Alamos fire say that photographs were the one irreplaceable thing they later wished they had saved — pictures of loved ones who are gone, photos of happier times in their lives, perhaps. But I think photos are the last thing I would concern myself with if I saw an orange glow on the horizon — I’m not that tied to my past.

Nor my future. That’s why I’d probably not take much of anything else. I’d grab my best sleeping bag and tent. My laptop computer is manageable enough, and since all my writing is on it I might want that.

Everything else I can replace.

It’s quite an irony for someone who spends nine months of the year huddled around a crackling woodstove to keep warm to be weighing all this.

Long ago I criticized developers who built condos and other homes below avalanche chutes and on floodplains in resort areas of this state. How moronic I thought that was. And now I suddenly realize I live in one of the biggest tinderboxes on the planet.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the fuelwood for the trees.

SO WHY ARE WE SO SURPRISED by the aridity? Sure, we had wet times in the 1980s and 1990s with deep winter snows and torrential summer monsoons. But history clearly documents the dust bowl years of the 1890s, 1930s and 1950s. John Steinbeck wasn’t joking around when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath in the late 1930s — the lack of moisture and abuse of the land is the backdrop that sets the entire story into motion. Ironically, the Joads headed for the Pacific Coast where water wasn’t so much of a problem but other matters kept them on the far edge of the human condition. I wonder how many trophy-homers in the Intermountain West will have similar experiences if the wells go dry, the trees become blackened stumps, and the only clouds on the horizon are those of wind-blown dust and smoke.

Some of my neighbors seem bent on hastening this process. Over the July 4th holiday one neighbor launched fireworks, the kind that explode in the air, into the upper boughs of the evergreens surrounding his home.

Never mind that fireworks are illegal in Custer County at all times of the year, every year. Another pair of neighbors that use their 35-acre lot as a weekend campsite, continued to build campfires all summer long despite the strict fire ban imposed by the county.

This is a stark contrast to the attitudes of some old-timers.

There’s one character in particular, a local legend, who took forest management and creation of wildlife habitat into his own hands. People who remember this fellow, who is long-since dead, credit him with the creation of many of the open parks, meadows, and slopes in the Sangre de Cristo mountains — and with lessening the fuelwood load considerably. He did it with a match and a keen sense for which way the wind was blowing. Truly, this guy may have been the last person to actually manage the forest, and he wasn’t on the U.S. Forest Service payroll.

HOW DID WE GET TO THIS POINT, and who is to blame? It’s easy to point to the Forest Service and the years of fire suppression it took to build up this tremendous fuel load in the forests, or the developers who promoted living in these areas with the same sort of real-estate boosterism that placed homes at the bottoms of avalanche chutes and in river floodplains in other mountain areas.

But the truth is that the public — myself included — wanted land set aside for Wilderness Areas, and this is where many of the fuel-choked forests stand. And we wanted forests to be managed for recreation rather than logging. Lastly we wanted to build homes and live here in the high-desert hills and pay no attention to the aridity and the overall health of forests on both public and private lands.

We let Smokey Bear put out the little fires, and now we have fires so big that Smokey can’t put them out even with the help of 25,000 firefighters from our own country, as well as others from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico. In August we were spending a budget-breaking $10 to $15 million per day fighting forest fires. And little rain is in the forecast. Not in the weeks ahead. Maybe not in the years ahead.

I surveyed the woods around my home, looking for clues of what has happened in the past. I looked first at the size of the trees, thinking that this would give me an idea of when the last fire blazed through this area. But there’s such a wide range of tree sizes, everything from tiny saplings to giants that are hundreds of years old. There also are many trees, both living and dead, with the scars of lightning strikes.

Then I started to notice the stumps. There were three types of stumps. Some were newer and were obviously cut with a chainsaw. Others were older but still cut with a saw, probably the cross-cut type that oldtimers called “rubbing irons.” Then there were stumps that had been hewn with an ax, the bite marks in this old wood still crisp as the day these trees fell. Many of these stumps of man-felled trees were rotting from the inside out. Perhaps it was this selective logging that has kept fire at bay in this area.

Then there was another type of stump. These stumps were of smooth, grayish, iron-hard wood, and some were covered with lichens. There was no clear indication of how the rest of the tree became detached, just a rough line of decapitation or a few splinters pointing into the sky. Some of these stumps seem to be weathering from the outside rather than rotting from the inside. I’m certain these stumps are from the last fire that swept through here, many, many years ago, perhaps before Europeople inhabited the area.

It’s these stumps that tell of the past and the future. Like avalanche chutes and floodplains, they tell of what has happened and what will happen again. It’s not a matter of if, but of when.

Ironically, writer Hal Walter has been working on a collection of essays called Fuel for the Fire for several years.